STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Almost two years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder went to Chicago to talk about youth violence.
Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Justice Department): We simply cannot stand for an epidemic of violence that robs our youth of their childhood and perpetuates a cycle in which too many of today's victims become tomorrow's criminals.
INSKEEP: Two years after that statement, the problem remains. In some areas, street gangs recruit boys before they reach adolescence. So this week, we're examining new efforts to stem youth violence in Chicago. Today, we look at a program called BAM, B-A-M. That stands for Becoming a Man. The goal is to reach youngsters before the gangs do.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: At Little Village Academy, eighth-grade boys in uniform - dark pants and gray polo shirts, or the school's gym shirts - start pouring into the school gymnasium.
Mr. TONY DIVITTORIO (Creator, BAM): Let's have a circle right here, along the black line. Big circle.
CORLEY: Tony DiVittorio is in his early 40s, a muscular, tattooed social worker whose black ponytail swings as he walks. He watches as the boys collect folding chairs and form a circle. DiVittorio works for Youth Guidance, a social service agency inside many of Chicago schools, and he created BAM.
This day's session begins with a team-building exercise. The boys lay down paper plates, then use them to gingerly navigate their way over imaginary lava.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: And if you step on it with your body, you burn up. And if you burn up, everyone burns up. These plates are the only thing that can get you across.
CORLEY: The goal is for everyone to get across. DiVittorio demonstrates, throwing a plate on the floor, stepping on it, lifting his foot to advance to a second plate while another BAM counselor steps on the first. It's a coordinated dance, and the boys try to follow suit.
Unidentified Man #1: You know, you just start putting them down, and get in front of it. Go ahead.
CORLEY: The students strategize. They wobble and lean and stretch to reach the paper plates, one after the other. Sometimes, it gets a little precarious, as they misstep and tumble into the pretend pool of lava.
Unidentified Group: Oh!
Unidentified Man #1: It's 'cause they went too fast.
(Soundbite of laughter, chatter)
Mr. DIVITTORIO: What do you need to do different now, to get across?
Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)
Mr. DIVITTORIO: A little help. You might get help, you might get balance.
Unidentified Man #2: Holding each other (unintelligible).
Mr. DIVITTORIO: Holding each other - that's a good idea.
CORLEY: It's a fun activity for the boys, but social worker DiVittorio is thinking clinically.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: The real purpose of the group mission is group cohesion. As a facilitator, I'm looking to see how they're respecting each other, how they're working together. If they pass it or they fail it, at the end, we talk about it. We talk about what their successes were, if there was blaming going on. We talk about things like that. And then we start to generalize that to outside of the group.
CORLEY: The boys earn rewards - field trips or free time in the gym - when they complete a set number of missions. At the end of this one, DiVittorio asks the students what made them successful.
Unidentified Teenager #1: The teamwork helps.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: Teamwork helps, nice. What kind of teamwork was it that we were talking about? Like, what specifically you mean?
Unidentified Teenager #2: Like when we would hold each other, like so we could get balanced, and passing the plates over.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: Did anyone here feel uncomfortable?
CORLEY: These students look so innocent, almost angelic. But these 13 and 14-year-olds are already at the age when many they know have joined gangs. This school year, at least 16 students who attend Chicago Public Schools have been murdered, 15 by gunfire. The number is higher for kids who are either dropouts or go to other types of schools.
Chicago police report that the total number of school-aged children killed in 2010 was 70. Nearly all of them died from gunshots, and half of those deaths were gang-related.
Jossue Salgado the students here know well the threats of their neighborhood.
Mr. JOSSUE SALGADO (Student): Three days ago, I saw a cop, and I heard that somebody got shot by a gangbanger, 'cause he was in a gang.
CORLEY: DiVittorio says the violence makes one aspect of BAM critical. He calls it men's work, where students sit in a circle and discuss a topic many consider taboo: Their feelings, and what makes them sad, scared or angry.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: It's very challenging. It's very confrontational. And it's based on this idea that there's no standardized rites of passage. There's no way for a boy to become a man in our society that's standard.
CORLEY: BAM operates in 16 Chicago public high schools and elementary schools. The students are often at risk of failing, have behavior problems or simply have no positive male role models in their lives. They meet in weekly sessions. The BAM counselors conduct clinical assessments, provide individual counseling if needed, and consult with teachers.
The curriculum, DiVittorio says, is built around core principles, such as integrity, accountability and positive ways to express anger.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: It's important what you think. Man, it is so important what you say. When you say something, I'm going to listen to that. It's important what you feel. But people judge us by what we do.
CORLEY: As DiVittorio talks to the boys about integrity, he focuses on 14-year-old Armando Isaula. A year ago, when he was in the seventh grade, Armando used to fight other students and disrupt classes.
Mr. ARMANDO ISAULA (Student): Oh, I didn't really care.
CORLEY: Now in eighth grade, Armando has changed his attitude, and most teachers praise him. But DiVittorio recently got word from one teacher that Armando was still misbehaving in one classroom.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: Armando, can I have your permission in front of the group to talk to you about something that's going on with you and one of your teachers? We could do a one-on-one - it's about integrity - or we can do it in front of the group. It's your choice.
CORLEY: Armando is hesitant.
Mr. ISAULA: You just really want to be nosy and know about other people's business?
CORLEY: DiVittorio says it's about the group helping Armando to be accountable. After a moment, Armando agrees to discuss the matter, and also offers an explanation.
Mr. ISAULA: Honestly, since everybody's always playing around, I just decided to play around, too. Because I think about it like a little break, but it's not all right.
CORLEY: After the group offers suggestions, Armando promises to do better. DiVittorio then shifts the focus back to Armando's successes.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: I'm getting so many positive reports back from teachers, and I think you deserve a group affirmation for that. You're a man of integrity.
(Soundbite of applause)
CORLEY: The University of Chicago Crime Lab is evaluating BAM and other programs designed to curb violence. Co-Director Harold Pollack says the lab wants to find out whether a program that began as one man's labor of love could work across a school system. Pollack says BAM, at a cost of about $1,000 per student, is promising.
Mr. HAROLD POLLACK (Co-Director, Chicago Crime Lab): We don't want to make any claims, you know, that any one program is going to dramatically reduce homicide rates in the city, deal with the large problems that these kids face. But one thing that we showed is that it's feasible to implement this thing on a big scale.
CORLEY: The students in the gymnasium explain how BAM and Tony DiVittorio have helped them. Gerardo Rosado says he'd learned how to control his emotions.
Mr. GERARDO ROSADO (Student): And also what to do in certain situations, you know, not to, like, always do everything physically. You know, you got to think.
CORLEY: Adrien Campos says the Becoming a Man program teaches them about life.
Mr. ADRIEN CAMPOS (Student): How to express ourselves and, you know, how to be true. Like, it's not about the gangs, not about any of that. It's about living life good.
Mr. DIVITTORIO: Don't forget what you learned here today, guys. And let's BAM out.
CORLEY: The session ends with a BAM handshake, oddly like a gang ritual. DiVittorio says this is not gang language, though - instead, an age-appropriate closing ritual that lets these young men show they are connected.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: We're going to continue reporting on this subject before we BAM out. Tomorrow, one school tries to create what it calls a culture of calm.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's NPR News.